We’ve all said it. When our child climbs a rock wall for the first time, does a cartwheel, or brings home some less-than-stellar art, it’s almost instinct to toss out an enthusiastic, “Good job!” And while it seems like we’re doing the right thing — offering encouragement and positive reinforcement — parenting experts caution that over time, a litany of knee-jerk, non-specific “good job” comments can do more harm than good.
Parenting author and lecturer Alfie Kohn states:
Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.
Kohn points out that the phrase, while well-intentioned, can unwittingly be used to control our kids’ behaviour, exploit their desire for approval, and eventually help create praise junkies who perform tasks only for accolades. In the long run, this reliance on external motivation and approval can dilute their joy and cause them to lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, also found that students who received lavish praise from their teachers responded more cautiously and presented their answers in a questioning tone of voice. Fearing failure, they did not share their ideas or persist with difficult assignments as readily.
Kohn concludes, “In short, ‘Good job!’ doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure.” So what can we say instead? Here are some alternatives.
Describe what you see
While it may feel awkward at first (we are so used to praising, after all), try a simple statement free from any evaluation or judgment. Phrases like, “You brushed your teeth by yourself!” or “You did it!” let your child know you noticed their achievement and invite them to take their own pride in it.
State the features of their work
When a child shows you their art, comment on the colours they used or any dominant features. “That sun is wearing sunglasses!” or “Wow, I see you used a lot of blue today.”
While a genuine “I love this! It’s so beautiful,” is certainly not going to scar our kids for life, it’s beneficial to incorporate questions as well. “What was the hardest part of making this Lego structure?” or “How did you choose this colour for the house?”
Praise effort, not results
Praising results can lead a child to believe the only thing that matters is the outcome of their work. Offering acknowledgement of their effort, however, leads to what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset;” the belief that persistence and practice will allow them to do hard things. Observations like, “You are really concentrating” or “You ran so hard to score that goal” both fall under that umbrella.
Point out their effect on other people
If your child does something kind-hearted for another person, rather than emphasising how we feel about it (“I’m so happy you did that”), shift their attention to the effect their caring act had on someone else. “Wow, Max looks so happy you shared with him!” This leads them to notice and appreciate how their actions positively impact others.
A short list of additional phrases:
- You worked so hard on that.
- You are getting really good at…(holding your pencil)
- That is so creative / That took a lot of imagination.
- I noticed your bed was made so neatly today.
- You look excited!
- What is your favourite part of what you made?
- Thank you for being so patient.
- That was very thoughtful/brave.
- That took a lot of strength.
- I can see you are really trying to make a good choice.
- You put so much effort into this.
- I couldn’t have done this without you.
- You did that all by yourself!
It’s important to keep in mind, of course, that a few “good jobs” aren’t going to permanently damage our kids. We don’t need to approach our children like emotionless androids, either. But if we focus on their effort, personal qualities, and making non-evaluative observations of things they do, they may be better equipped to feel independent, secure, and confident in their talents, whether they gain approval or not.